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Fishing Virginia: Tidal Rivers Provide Exciting Fishing Experiences

Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries biologists (DGIF) don’t stop at providing Virginia with the finest trout and walleye fishing opportunities. They also ensure that some of the best largemouth bass and blue cat fishing is found right here in the Commonwealth.

Largemouth bass and catfish are among Virginia’s premier sport fish. Virginia tidal rivers showcase some of the best bass and catfish fishing around the southeast and across the nation. The James/Chickahominy, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, and the Mattaponi are primary tidal rivers for an exciting and rewarding experience casting a line.


Tidal rivers provide some the best largemouth bass fishing in the Commonwealth, especially the James and Chickahominy rivers. Not far from urban locations, these rivers are in or near cities for a favorable escape to the outdoors. These waters offer convenient options for boat ramps and bank fishing opportunities.

Where to Fish for Largemouth

The James and Chickahominy rivers are outstanding options for largemouth bass fishing. The combination of huge fish (10-plus pound lunkers) and well-above average catch rates make these tidal rivers a true destination. Either river is worthy of an angler’s time, and both are tied at being at the top of the list of tidal rivers. In 2015, the Chickahominy River was stocked with 40,000 fingerling (small, young fish) largemouth bass, and in 2016 and 2017, it was stocked with nearly 114,000 fish.  The Pamunkey River is a great destination if an angler is looking for lots of 1-2 pound bass. Typical fish come in at around 15 inches.  The Rappahannock River (above Rte. 301) is a great option for anglers seeking tidal river bass action in Northern Virginia.


Fishing a falling tide on channel drop-offs is a beneficial strategy. Take advantage of fallen trees, weed lines, pad lines, woody debris, dock pilings, and other habitat structure as these are habitats where bass linger. Anglers should know that the tide produces a strong current on these rivers and their tributaries, and many avid anglers prefer to fish the timeframe around slack tide—the time around either high or low tide.

Blue Cats

Virginia’s tidal rivers offer excellent opportunities to catch blue catfish, but the James River has been recognized nationally for more than a decade as a premier trophy fishery. Anglers from around the country have been traveling to central Virginia for guided James River fishing trips. But, all tidal rivers in the Commonwealth are prime for catching blue cats.


The James River and tributaries provide the best catfishing in Virginia with unmatched numbers and high abundance of large fish. The James has the highest catch rates of preferred sized (≥ 30”) blue catfish. High numbers of large fish can be found upstream of the James Harrison Bridge. If fishing this river, be prepared for fish weighing between one and one-hundred pounds.

The Pamunkey River and Mattaponi River systems form the York River, and are very similar in terms of size distribution and catch rates. If you want an opportunity to catch good eating size cats in the three-to-five-pound range, these rivers are ideal. The best size catfish for consumption weighs less than six pounds. It is advised to seek the Virginia Department of Health website for recommendations on catfish consumption.

The Rappahannock River is characterized by high abundance of small fish. If an angler wants numbers to fill the freezer and aren’t as much concerned about trophy fishing, the Rappahannock provides a great opportunity in Northern Virginia.


Catfish usually dwell near or in deep holes, fallen trees, and drop-offs, especially along the outer bends in the river. Creek mouths are also good options for locating catfish. Valuable bait to use are gizzard shad, eel, or various types of cut bait; an angler has a good chance of catching blue catfish when any of these are rigged near the bottom. Catfish are considered opportunistic omnivores, which means they have a diverse diet and feed on what’s abundant at the time.

Whether a new or seasoned angler, these tidal rivers offer some of the most advantageous fishing in Virginia at a convenient distance from home. With current population numbers, anglers are nearly guaranteed to hook a line in pursuit of either of these species. Buy your license today and get out on the water this spring!

  • April 27, 2018